WEST VIRGINIA GAME NOTES | LOUISVILLE GAME NOTES
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – When Louisville coach Charlie Strong began pouring through West Virginia’s football statistics sometime after his team’s impressive 27-10 victory over Syracuse last Saturday, the one area that surely caught his attention was the number of rushing yards the Mountaineers are allowing this year.
As it stands right now, West Virginia has permitted its opponents to run the ball for 1,064 yards, 10 touchdowns and an average of 3.8 yards per carry through eight games. In week three, Maryland ran for 188 yards and three touchdowns. A week later LSU got 186 yards and three scores. Two weeks ago, Syracuse rumbled for 194 yards and a pair of scores.
Even last week, in horrendous conditions against a less-than-stellar rushing attack, the Mountaineers saw Rutgers run for 151 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Keep in mind, West Virginia last year allowed only one team (LSU) to rush for more than 150 yards in any game and surrendered just three rushing touchdowns for the entire season in a defensive scheme that is specifically designed to stop the run. When the defense is not doing something it’s specifically designed to do, that’s cause for concern.
Therefore, it’s a safe bet West Virginia will see a running play or two on Saturday afternoon when the rapidly improving Cardinals come to town for a noon game that will be televised as the Big East Network Game of the Week.
Louisville may be catching the Mountaineers at the right time, too. The 4-4 Cardinals have already done something West Virginia (6-2, 2-1) wasn’t able to do this season – beat Rutgers and Syracuse in consecutive games – and they have finally discovered a rushing attack that has been missing, really, since Bobby Petrino’s departure.
“Whether they’re going to try and pound us with the run game and play action us … they have that in their game,” said West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. “They run a lot of different things out of the Pistol, we’re going to see more option than we’ve probably seen all year and they’ve hurt people with it, so their versatile. I’m sure they’re taking a look at us and saying let’s go and attack them (with the running game.”
Louisville has averaged 166 yards on the ground with a pair of rushing scores in its last two victories over Rutgers and Syracuse. Senior Victor Anderson ignited the Cardinal ground game against Syracuse last Saturday by running for a season-high 93 yards on just 11 carries. His 61-yard touchdown jaunt in the fourth quarter last week against the Orange was the longest run by a Cardinal ball carrier this season.
Anderson is now second on the team in rushing with 282 yards, trailing Jeremy Wright’s team-best 303 yards. Look for Anderson, Wright and converted quarterback Dominique Brown to try and pound West Virginia with inside runs to open up the play action passing game for true freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, making his sixth consecutive start this weekend.
“He’s got the ability to make a play,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “He’s like Geno (Smith) was two years ago, growing into himself and learning. He’s talented and has a good arm. He has the ability to get out of it and run down the field and he’s developing a pretty good rapport with the guys around him.”
Bridgewater is one of nine true freshmen listed on Louisville’s offensive two-deep this week and the quarterback has grown by leaps and bounds since his first career start against Marshall back on Oct. 1.
In that game, Bridgewater completed 70 percent of his passes for a season-high 221 yards, but he also threw a pair of picks in a game Louisville lost 13-10. Afterward, Strong parted ways with offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and gave quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson the play calling duties.
“They made some changes and since they’ve done that, they’ve been a little more efficient,” said Holgorsen. “Up front they’ve got their center back (Mario Benavides). We say we’re not very experienced with our offensive line, well, we’ve got more than one guy back. Those guys are learning to play with each other and they’ve got a bunch of skill kids who look talented to me.”
The last two weeks the Bridgewater-Watson pairing is starting to blossom, Bridgewater completing 10 of 18 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown in Louisville’s 16-14 win over the Scarlet Knights and then last week he played his most efficient game of the year by completing 17-of-24 passes for 198 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Bridgewater is now sixth among true freshman quarterbacks in the country with 1,029 passing yards to go with seven touchdowns and six interceptions. Although Bridgewater shows just 39 yards rushing so far this year, he is also a threat with the ball under his arm, either by running it or to buy more time in the pocket to allow his receivers to get open.
Six-foot-eight-inch, 240-pound tight end Josh Chichester has turned into one of Bridgewater’s favorite targets, Chichester catching a red zone TD pass last week against Syracuse and now showing 21 receptions for 282 yards for the season. The senior has caught at least one pass in 19 straight games and is averaging 13.4 yards per reception this year.
Considering how effective Syracuse was using tight ends against West Virginia’s defense two weeks ago, Chichester is a guy to keep an eye on.
Two other guys to pay attention to are sophomore Z receiver Michaelee Harris, who leads the team with 26 catches for 356 yards and two touchdowns, and freshman speedster DeVante Parker, whose 11 catches include four going for touchdowns – all four coming from a distance of 25 yards or longer.
Last week, Parker got behind Syracuse’s secondary for a 42-yard score on Louisville’s opening drive of the game. Louisville’s 343 total yards against Syracuse were its most since putting up 446 in a seven-point loss to Florida International in week two.
And while the offense is now beginning to find itself, the Cardinal defense has been a constant throughout the year. Louisville is ranked 11th in the nation in scoring defense (16.2 ppg.), 12th in rushing defense (97.4 ypg.) and 12th in total defense (295.6 ypg.). It is probably the best defense West Virginia will face the rest of the way and is second only to LSU in terms of talent and playmaking ability on the Mountaineer schedule this year.
“It starts with coaching,” said Holgorsen. “Charlie Strong has been as well-respected of a defensive coordinator as there’s been in the profession for the last two decades. The guy’s won two national championships (as an assistant with Florida) and has been a part of some good programs being the defensive coordinator. That tells you something.”
Louisville has only allowed two teams – Marshall and Cincinnati – to gain more than 300 yards of total offense and last week limited Syracuse to a mere 246 total yards. Kentucky had the most success throwing the ball against the Cardinal defense, passing for 255 yards in a 24-17 loss, but the Cardinal secondary is surrendering a very respectable 198.2 yards per game through the air.
Strong has a big, physical front anchored by beefy underclass nose tackles Brandon Dunn and Jamaine Brooks, and defensive tackles Roy Philon and Randy Salmon.
Fox end Marcus Smith leads the team in sacks with five - all of them coming in his last four games - but there is word coming out of Louisville that he may not be available on Saturday because of a high ankle sprain suffered in practice. If that is indeed the case, Louisville has a capable replacement in senior William Savoy, who shows 15 career tackles for loss and 11 sacks. Savoy has three sacks this year.
Senior inside linebacker Dexter Heyman is Louisville’s top tackler with 55 stops, including 12 tackles against Murray State and Kentucky. He had a career-high 13 tackles last year against Arkansas State. Sophomore sam linebacker Preston Brown also shows 55 tackles, including a season-high nine solos against Murray State.
Heyman and senior nickel back Mike Evans lead Louisville with two interceptions each.
“They’ve done a nice job of getting guys and recruiting,” said Holgorsen. “They play a lot of people.”
Heading into this year, Louisville was considered one of the youngest teams in the country. The Cardinals list 15 true freshmen on their offensive and defensive two-deeps. Despite that, Holgorsen says Louisville is a deeper football team than his.
“Due to the fact that they’re young and they’re playing, they’re probably going to get better,” he added.
Saturday’s game is the 13th in a series that dates back to 1984. West Virginia has won 10 of 12 including seven of eight in Morgantown. Louisville’s lone victory in Morgantown came in 1990 during its Fiesta Bowl season under former coach Howard Schnellenberger.
The Mountaineers have won the last four in a row against Louisville, although eight of the last nine meetings have been decided by 10 points or less. Last year, West Virginia defeated the Cardinals 17-10 at Papa Johns Cardinal Stadium.
There is a favorable weather forecast for the game with sunny skies and temperatures approaching the 60s predicted for Saturday. A limited number of tickets still remain for the game and those can be purchased by calling the Mountaineer Ticket Office toll-free at 1-800-WVU GAME, or by logging on to WVUGAME.com.
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